If you’re around the Nationals for a day or two, you forget that Bryce Harper is only 19 years old
I mean, you expect certain things from a 19-year-old. You expect him to be shy, maybe awkward. You expect him to be look at the floor and spit out a broken sentences when he speaks to the media. You expect him to look completely overmatched at times, physically, if not emotionally. Bryce Harper has looked completely at home from the moment he stepped into the Nationals’ clubhouse. He’s physically mature, and whether he’s giving interviews or fouling off killer breaking stuff, he looks for all the world like he has been in the big leagues for a decade.
That he has struck out 26 times in 139 ABs is the best indication that he’s not one bit overmatched. The Nationals have to be surprised by this, if not stunned. Harper hadn’t torn up Triple A, and when he was summoned to the Major Leagues last month, both the Nationals and agent Scott Boras warned that he probably would be sent back to the minor leagues at some point.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson had a different take. He thought Harper might actually be more relaxed in the Major Leagues because he was no longer facing the pressure of showing people he belonged. To finally get to the big leagues was the culmination of everything he’d worked for. All he had to do is play baseball, and he has done that better than almost anyone from the time he put on a uniform for the first time.
Still, there was no way to know he’d be this good. With a single, double and home run against the Red Sox on Friday night, he pushed his batting average to .288. His OPS is approaching .900. He can run, too, and his defense in the outfield is passable for someone still learning the position.
Those first days were awkward because the media was focused completely on Harper. That can lead to problems because the Nationals were winning before he arrived, and when the questions would be about him energizing the clubhouse, veterans struggled to say the right thing.
Meanwhile, Harper played. He played hard. He played well. He earned the respect of virtually everyone. When Cole Hamels plunked him for no apparent reason, Harper said nothing. He’s going to get thrown out on the bases a bunch of times in his career, but he’s also going to make plays, create runs and ignite rallies.
The Nationals could be headed for the playoffs for a long list of reasons. They’ve got a starting rotation of hard throwers who make opposing hitters uncomfortable. They’ve got a terrific manager and a big-time bullpen. They’ve got veteran leadership in the clubhouse. They also appear to be energized by larger home crowds and being in a pennant race for the first time. But Harper and Stephen Strasburg are the faces on the franchise, and they symbolize the transformation of a franchise.